I present to you–reluctantly–my 3rd round entry for the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge 2015. I’ll admit, this isn’t my finest piece of work, but I’m proud to have finished a story within 24-hours. I’m also proud to have completed all three rounds of the SSC. Each challenged me in different ways and taught me how to be a better writer.
Congrats to everyone who participated in this year’s SSC! And congrats to those who survived the third round. It wasn’t easy, so you deserve a giant pat on the back. (If you’d like to read about my experience with the final round, click here!)
Reminder, I had 24-hours to write a 1,500 word story based on these prompts:
Thanks in advance for reading, and thanks for any feedback you might have!
“The Accidental Fall”
By Jenna Willett
Brief Synopsis: How could two happy accidents lead to one so tragic? That is a question Beth Haynes must answer.
“We’ll be back in ten minutes.”
“Hold on.” Beth knotted a pink balloon and tossed it into the air. “I’ll get my purse and go with you.”
“No, stay put.” Jacob picked up their daughter. “Miss Maggie can keep me company, can’t you?” He nuzzled her neck.
Maggie shied away. “Can Lady Lulu come with us?”
“I’m afraid Lady Lulu had a little accident, sweetie.” Beth smirked at the raggedy doll in the kitchen sink. Its pink dress was soaked from taking a dive in the toilet earlier.
“Will she be okay?”
“After a bath she will be.” Jacob kissed Maggie’s cheek and looked at Beth. “So, vanilla? Chocolate? Both?”
“Both.” Beth began blowing up another balloon. “And get some candles. I forgot those too.” As the front door slammed shut, she called, “Love you!”
She wasn’t sure if they’d heard her.
“Are you okay?”
Beth’s eyes jerked up from the rushing river. An old man stood on the footbridge a few feet behind her. She forced herself to nod. “I’m fine.”
He tilted his graying head to the side and dropped his concerned gaze to the doll clutched in her hand. “Are you sure?”
She nodded. “I’m fine.”
The old man looked unconvinced. Beth didn’t care. She turned away and stared down at the frothy rapids. She couldn’t remember how she’d gotten there. She couldn’t even remember grabbing Lady Lulu from its box in the garage, or putting on Jacob’s wool coat and leaving the house. All she could remember was seeing the date on her phone when she’d woken up: May 14th.
Beth’s legs weakened, and she leaned against the bridge’s rusted railing.
Seven years ago today, she’d met Jacob when he’d accidentally walked in on her in a Starbuck’s bathroom. She’d called him a jerk. He’d asked her out. Three months later, they were married. He’d vowed to always knock first.
Five years ago today, she’d given birth to their “oopsie” baby, Miss Maggie. Jacob had forgotten to buy condoms at the store. Beth had convinced him they didn’t need one…Oops.
One year ago today, she’d forgotten to buy ice cream for Maggie’s 4th birthday party. Jacob had taken Maggie with him to the store to buy some. They hadn’t come back.
They were never coming back.
Her therapist, family, and friends had convinced her of this, and she’d thought she’d accepted it. But…she hadn’t. How? How could two happy accidents lead to one so tragic? How could fate be so cruel as to give her so much and then take it all away?
A ragged sob erupted from her throat and, without pausing to think, she tucked Lady Lulu into the crook of her arm and climbed over the bridge’s railing.
“Whoa, wait!” The old man shuffled over to her.
“Please, don’t,” she whispered. “I’m doing this. You can’t stop me.”
His response came slow and gentle. “The fall won’t kill you, if that’s what you’re hoping for. The bridge isn’t tall enough.”
Beth glanced down. Even in the early morning sun, the water looked as black as night. A chill tiptoed down her spine.
“You’ll drown or freeze to death,” the old man warned. “And you don’t want that. You don’t want this. And—And neither would your husband or kid.”
Beth cringed. Of course he would know who she was. Everyone in town did. She was the poor woman who’d lost everything she’d cherished in a matter of ten seconds. She should’ve left Eagle after the accident—left Colorado completely—and moved back to Chicago to live with her parents. But she couldn’t do it. Moving away would’ve meant leaving Jacob and Maggie behind, and she couldn’t leave them. Not then, not now, not ever.
A tear trickled down Beth’s cheek.
But home wasn’t home anymore. Home was a never-ending nightmare. She couldn’t handle the silence, the lingering scent of Jacob’s cologne, the empty bed, the useless tea set, the random discovery of a lost pink sock.
She hugged Lady Lulu to her chest. “Mr…?”
“Eli. My name’s Eli. I’m the head janitor at Brush Creek Element—”
“Would you tell my parents I’m sorry, Eli?”
His calloused hands rested on the rail next to her. They trembled ever so slightly. “Mrs. Haynes—Beth—you don’t want to—”
“And that I love them very much?”
“Your husband and daughter wouldn’t have wanted you to—”
“And I wish…” She closed her eyes. “I wish I could go back and change what happened. I wish I’d bought ice cream. I wish I’d kissed Jacob goodbye. I wish I’d hugged Maggie. I wish,” her voice cracked, “I wish I’d gotten in the car and died with them.”
“Don’t say that. You’re here for a reason.”
A bitter laugh slipped from her lips. If life had taught her anything, it was that there were no such things as reasons. Only accidents.
Eli touched her arm. “If you jump, you’ll—”
She let go of the bridge’s railing and jumped.
The janitor’s bellow for help faded as she plummeted toward the river. The icy air stung her cheeks, tore at Jacob’s coat, and stole her breath away. She clutched Lady Lulu closer as she struck the water.
Everything went black.
For a moment, she thought she had died from the fall. Then the powerful currents ripped Lady Lulu from her arms and panic brought her back to life. Beth made a mad grab for the doll. Her fingertips brushed against its arm at the same time she struck an underwater boulder. Agony exploded through her shoulder and a scream started in her gut and rose in her throat. She opened her mouth to release the bloodcurdling wail and water poured in. The taste of ice, fish, and dirt choked her, while the unforgiving currents tossed and kicked her to the surface.
She sputtered, gagged, and drew in a lifesaving breath. “I’m sorry!” she screamed. “I wish—” The river sucked her back under. She struggled to reach the surface again, but the weight of Jacob’s coat dragged her down, down, down…
She had to get it off—let it go—let him go if she wanted to live. Beth fumbled with the buttons, frantic and out of breath, suddenly certain Jacob and Maggie’s dying wish would’ve been for her to live. To fight.
She shimmied, shrugged, and wriggled out of the coat and popped straight to the surface. Along the way, a tree limb scraped against her cheek and another boulder cracked against her knee. She hardly felt the pain this time. She was so cold.
Eli had been right. She was going to drown or freeze to death. Or both.
The sharp order came from her left, in the woods. Shivering and gasping, she searched the trees until she saw a cyclist screaming at her. “Swim towards me!” She blinked at him, baffled by his appearance.
Her sluggish mind refused to connect the dots. Instead, it zeroed in on something pink floating by the shore. Beth couldn’t believe it. It couldn’t be. Fate had proven itself too cruel to give her such a perfect beacon. And yet…She bared her teeth and swam toward it, her movements jerky and clumsy, but determined.
The stranger leaped from his bike and sprinted into the shallows up ahead. “Grab my hand!”
Beth ignored his command, her attention focused on the pink object. She had to reach it. It was safe. It was hope. It was home. It was all she had left of her baby girl.
“Come on, lady!” The stranger waded deeper into the currents, all the way up to his waist. “Grab my hand!” He reached for her as the river carried her closer and closer to him and Lady Lulu. The doll swirled around and around until it lost its fragile grip on the tree branch.
Beth cried out as it floated away.
“Grab my hand now or I can’t save you!”
The stranger’s words echoed through Beth’s dazed mind, piercing the sorrowful mist that threatened to consume her all over again.
She’d let go of Jacob. She had to let go of Maggie too. Because she now realized the moment she’d jumped, was the moment she’d finally touched down. She now understood life was full of both accidents and choices.
And this was her moment to choose.
She pursed her lips, looked away from Maggie’s doll, and lunged for the stranger’s hand.
Round 1: The Ark
(Assignment: 2,500 words, 8 days, horror, medical tourism, 50-year old woman)
Round 2: The Darkness Whispers
(Assignment: 2,000 words, 3 days, ghost story, a statue, a waitress) Please note: Since I’m planning to expand this story into a full novel, I have added a password to protect it. If you would like to access it, please send me a message and I will provide it to you.
To read more stories, visit the Jen’s Pen Page.